Looking for some weekend destinations—near Kolkata—to visit during winter? Here is a photo-essay to help you plan.
Bishnupur, the former capital of the Malla dynasty of Bengal is famous for many things—terracotta art, baluchari saris, folk crafts, especially the ganjifa cards, now extant Bishnupuri gharana of music, etc. Easily reached from Kolkata, by road (150km) and rail (200km), Bishnupur is a pleasant weekend destination. An art and culture festival is held during the Christmas week. One of the biggest attractions here are the temples built between late 16th and early 19th centuries. The richly sculpted terracotta temples (of which the Shyam Rai temple is one) speak highly of the artisans of Bengal. Note the variety of roofs and spires used to accentuate the architectural styles. The story-telling silk baluchari saris will please the ethnic buyer.
The Rasmancha of Bishnupur is probably the only one of its kind structure in India. The three-tiered pyramidal structure was built in 1587 by Bir Hambir, under whose rule Vaishnavism flourished in Bishnupur. It is 35 feet in height and 80 feet in breadth and width; there are three galleries divided into 64 compartments. The idols of Radha Krishna from all over the kingdom used to be brought here during the raas festival (now discontinued). Despite the inner divisions, you can see the entire interior no matter where you stand. It is located very near the West Bengal Tourism’s tourist lodge, (one of the best places to stay in Bishnupur).
Do these stylised terracotta horses remind you of anything? Yes, you are right; it is the symbol of the Central Cottage Industries Emporium. You will find plenty of shops and road-side stalls in Bishnupur selling these horses and other artefacts made from terracotta. Visit Panchmura village, about an hour’s drive from Bishnupur, to see the terracotta artisans at work. You can also buy directly from them.
If you like an unstructured holiday, or a day’s outing on a budget, then head to Falta, about 50km south of Kolkata. There are hardly any signs of the former colonial occupation. The export processing zone and the special economic zone tags have now turned Falta into a ubiquitous Indian town. So escape to the riverside. The sweeping view of the Hooghly river (as the Ganga is known in its final stretch before joining the Bay of Bengal sea) is attractive. At Falta Point, it is joined by the Damodar River. You can drive to Falta or take any of the local buses from Kolkata. You can also combine Diamond Harbour and Raichak (all located on the river) with the trip to Falta.
Joychandi Hill of Purulia shot to fame after director Satyajit Ray shot his popular film Heerak Rajar Deshe here. In winter, aspiring mountaineers crowd here to practise. Joychandi Hill is located on the Purulia-Barakar Road. Joychandi Pahar railway station lies on the Asansol-Adra section of the south-eastern Railway.
Join the local pilgrims to climb around 500 steps carved along the Joychandi Hill to reach the temple at the top (dedicated to Goddess Chandi). You can also visit the hill if you are visiting the nearby popular destinations, such as Garh Panchakot. The hill is about 300km from Kolkata. A tourism festival is sometimes organised by the local people in January.
Nearly 200km north of Kolkata, Murshidabad has a long history. But suffice to say that it was the seat of the last independent Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-daula; it was the Nawab’s defeat in the Battle of Plassey that finally paved the way for the English East India Company to rule India. Devote a day or two to see the Islamic architectural heritage, and the legacy of the later Nawabs and the merchants from Rajasthan who settled here and build a fortune. The Hajarduari Palace (hajar=1000; duar=door) was built in the early 19th century. However, there are actually 900 doors and the remaining 100 are a pretension. Today, it serves as a museum containing a collection of furniture, paintings by European masters, chronometers, manuscripts, etc.
Cossimbazar, in Murshidabad, was an important river port many years ago, being surrounded by the rivers Bhagirathi (Ganga), Jalangi and Padma. Its main export was silk. Today, the palace (rajbari) preserves glimpses of the flourishing past. A part of the Cossimbazar Rajbari (www.cossimbazarpalaceroys.in) has been painstakingly restored—front gates, railings, the front patio, clock tower with the clock working, the marble stairs leading into the main building, the north verandah, the ball room annexes, dining room artefacts, furniture, Andar mahal, the temples and the chandimandap, the Majlish Ghar and gardens.
A visit to Shantiniketan, forever coloured by the memories of India’s famous poet, Rabindranath Tagore, has almost become a custom. After the de rigueur sightseeing around Viswa Bharati—the university township founded by Tagore—escape to Khowai, the vast tract of red soil dotted with green trees. Every weekend, a bazar sprouts in Khowai, where you can buy locally made handicrafts for a bargain. Shantiniketan is known for batik prints, especially on leather.
Shantiniketan is home to a large number of Bauls, the itinerant singers. Be it at the weekend bazar in Khowai or at the Poush Mela—held during Christmas week—the soulful renderings are bound to turn you into an insta-philosopher. If you are a connoisseur of ethnic art and craft, then a visit to the Poush Mela (being held since 1901) is a must. The lake in nearby Ballabhpur Sanctuary is visited by migratory birds in winter.